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Christ, the Revelation of God’s Agency

This is the second part of a series based on notes from a lecture delivered by Rowan Williams at Saint Louis University on 7 March, 2017. Part One can be found here.

Part One: Historical Perspective

If we look at the way language about Jesus Christ develops from the earliest days onwards, what we see is a gradual clarification—not just of what is said about Christ, but of what is said about God. In the early stages, Christian writers often reached for a mythological framework to describe Christ—a framework in which an exalted, heavenly being was manifested in the earthly framework of Christ’s life (e.g., the Archangel Michael; the high priest Melchizedek). There was a role in the Jewish thinking of the time for a supreme and archangelic mediator who communicates  the purposes of God from the divine to the created. What is interesting in the development of early Christian thought is not that theologians reached for that kind of language to describe Jesus, but that they quickly recognized it wasn’t enough. Something more had to be said about the fundamental, creative agency upon which all being rests—as manifest and active in the person of Jesus. The Arian controversy, which tore the church apart, was largely concerned with the clarification of that distinction. When we say that the divine is at work in Jesus, we must mean it! We must mean “that in which all fundamental reality converges.” We must not mean “something that is a very exalted version of created reality, or created agency.” If we say that God is at work in Jesus of Nazareth, we must also mean that Jesus of Nazareth is truly and completely part of the finite world. Qualifying the scope and reach of Jesus’s life and its achievement—clarifying it as an act of God, as a new creation—must mean that Jesus is human (hence we move, through fits and starts, from Nicaea to Chalcedon).

Part Two: Philosophical Perspective

As Christians reflect on what needs to be said about Jesus Christ, the distinction between finite and infinite becomes clearer. To speak of God in Jesus is not to speak of some extra agency alongside Jesus. Jesus was an individual finite substance like you and I. Moreover, his finite substance was sustained and “shot through” at every level by the infinite reality that is the Word of God. That infinite activity, of course, was not deflected or changed in its purpose, nor was that finite substance totally subsumed. Becoming “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” save for sin (Heb 2:17), Christ’s human will never competed against the will of the Father. As such, in the words of Saint Bonaventure, “in the soul of Christ [the divine will] is realized most generously, both because the soul possesses a grace that fills its capacity in every way, and because the eternal mirror offers itself to that soul, manifesting itself with total familiarity” (Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ, Question 7, Conclusion, page 188).

But what of the impassibility and immutability of divine agency? We must acknowledge that God is impassible and immutable; God is not delimited or “named” from within the framework of change that characterizes our universe. Yet this is not to say that God lacks anything, or that God in Jesus Christ is somehow a limited “version” of the divine. Rather, it is we who lack something in our perception. As Cardinal Newman said, to be finite is to change often. And that’s good for us. It would be problematic if we did not change. The question is: can we imagine an infinite activity that does not change because it is wholly and immutably free to be what it is? God is eternally that ability to be what and who God is. The kenotic assumption of humanity by Christ, therefore, entails nothing less than the radical offer of renewal (or, to use Bonaventure’s language again, the radical “reduction”) of all things in return to their Source.

Part Three: Theological Perspective

Let us now turn to  twentieth century critiques of traditional Christological doctrine. Philosopher John Hick’s The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) claims that asserting Jesus’ divinity and humanity together is like drawing a square circle. But Aquinas, Scotus, and Calvin had addressed this argument centuries before.They understood that the one thing we were not doing is supposing that God is a kind of thing like other kinds of things in the universe. This point was completely taken for granted by every medieval theologian, and lay at the heart of some of the most interesting and lively controversies during the Reformation. The theological grammar of Chalcedon dictates against the notion that one subject (Jesus Christ) somehow possesses two incompatible qualities (divinity and humanity).

Rather more serious is the objection that the language of classical Christology gives us a diminished account of the finite humanity of Jesus. For instance, what Maximus meant by “complete humanity” is not exactly what moderns mean. However, the point is that Jesus’ finite integrity has to be affirmed—in whatever terms we think of human integrity. Byzantine and medieval theologians could easily contemplate that Jesus had all kinds of preternatural or unusual knowledge. It was conceivable to them that the finite mind of Jesus could contain a knowledge of all true propositions about finite reality. Most moderns would be reluctant to go down that route. Nevertheless, what we have in tradition is a set of grammatical concerns that are utilized in order to talk about Jesus theologically. If your view of the human mind entails that Jesus did not know the details of the American Revolution, it does not necessarily follow that you must alter the Chalcedonian definition of the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity.

Another complaint is that classical Christology is heavily shaped by an imperative to protect the divine nature from change or suffering. In today’s theological climate, the idea of divine suffering is more accepted than it was in the past. When we ascribe to the divine a freedom from change or suffering, we do not describe an absence of some good quality (e.g., compassion or empathy). The fact that God knows—at every level and in every sense—what it is for creatures to suffer is intrinsic to our doctrine of divine knowledge. That God must somehow acquire that knowledge by being identified as a human being is much more doubtful. It’s a complex question, and I will leave it aside to say that we simply must not rush to conclusions about classical theology and what it claims.

The point of the structure (or “grammar”) of traditional theology is to let us know that the relation between Creator and creature is not, and can never be, one of competition or rivalry. The intensity of God’s maximal action and presence in a human being does not entail the diminution of humanity. We do not have to become less human in order to become adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. God’s will and purpose entail the fulfillment, transfiguration, and completion of finite reality, rather than its extinction. The world we inhabit—a world of human relation, agency, and social interaction—is all held together within a divine purpose.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Ben is currently a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. Ben writes from within the Roman Catholic tradition, and specializes in research on Saint Bonaventure, Saint Augustine, philosophical theology, and Christian mysticism.